My Immigrant Grandmothers and Irving Berlin

When I wrote in a recent column that I didn’t know my fathers’ parents, that wasn’t quite true. I did know my grandmother Bertha Steinfield, at least a little.  he was bedridden at her sister Nellie’s house in Revere, Massachusetts. My father took me there to see her when I was four, and I remember the visit to this day.

I went into the bedroom, and there was this old lady. I don’t remember kissing her, but I must have done so. My father would have insisted. I do remember that I sang her a song, one of the few I knew at that young age. It was “God Bless America.” Seventy-five years have gone by since I stood next to that bed and sang that song, my father and great-aunt at the end of the bed, my ailing and frail grandmother looking up at me. But I remember it.

My other grandmother, Lillian Firestone, I knew very well. As I wrote here many years ago, she had a sweet voice and used to sing her favorite song to me. It was “Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon.”

I assume my two grandmothers knew each other well, but that’s another piece of family history gone missing. The Steinfields moved to Claremont from Chelsea, Massachusetts, around 1900, my namesake grandfather died in an accident in 1912, and the Firestones arrived from Berlin, New Hampshire, in 1930. I don’t even know when my widowed grandmother Steinfield left Claremont for Revere, but the two women must have overlapped for a time.

According to the President, this country faces an immigration crisis. If we don’t stop it, he says, we will lose our country. Late last month, the Supreme Court upheld his “travel ban,” a 5-4 decision in which the majority deferred to the President’s “broad discretion” in the area of national security, while the minority accused the Court of upholding an immigration policy motivated by anti-Muslim bias.

I’m no immigration expert, and I express no opinion here on the Court’s decision. As the grandson of immigrants, however, I have always known that one of our country’s virtues is that it welcomes, in the words written by the poet Emma Lazarus and inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Many of those “huddled masses,” including my grandparents, came here in search of a better and safer life.

I can’t speak for the Steinfield immigrants, but I know firsthand that my Firestone grandparents loved this country as if it were their own, which it was from the day they set foot on Ellis Island more than a hundred years ago.

Irving Berlin became rich writing songs that most of us can hum – “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Always,” “Blue Skies,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” and “White Christmas,” to name a few. He didn’t start out rich, or begin as “Irving Berlin.” He was born Israel Beilin in Russia in 1888 and came to this country when he was five, in 1893, a year or two after the Steinfields and a decade or so before the Firestones. All of them were fleeing pogroms in small Russian villages (“shtetls”) where it wasn’t safe to be Jewish.

Like so many immigrants, Irving Berlin made his way in the country that took him in. He wrote so many hit songs that he became a veritable one-man American songbook.

Two of those Irving Berlin songs were “Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon,” which one grandmother sang to me, and “God Bless America,” which I sang to my other grandmother.

They were all Americans.  And yes, an immigrant wrote “God Bless America.”

2018-07-16T09:15:50+00:00By |